Thursday, June 30, 2005

Michigan's offense: The WRs and TEs

Braylon Edwards is gone. He takes with him the most productive receiving career in the history of Michigan football. Three straight 1000 yard seasons and Chad Henne's security blanket last year are nothing more than a distant memory. But don't feel too bad Chad Henne. He does have the privilege of throwing to some very talented players.

First up? Jason Avant. This kid is tough as nails and is fearless going over the middle and will block as well as anybody. He may not have blazing speed, but he is still capable of racking up big numbers. And my money says he will be Chad Henne's go to guy in clutch situations and he will lead Michigan in receptions next year.

And if Jason Avant is the glue that holds the WRs together, Steve Breaston brings the wiggle and elusiveness. He had a brilliant freshman season that featured better numbers than Ted Ginn had last year, but was hampered in his sophomore campaign by injuries. He did get healthy by the end of the year and torched the Longhorns in the Rose Bowl to the tune of over 300 total yards. With Edwards gone, I think Breaston will get a lot more plays designed to go to him and get him loose in the defensive backfield. And when he does get his hands on the ball, defenders start looking silly. There are very few players in the country that can change direction as fast and as smoothly as he can and he accelerates to full speed as fast as anybody. While he won't catch the jump balls like Edwards did last year, he'll make a ton of big plays with his running after the catch. Plus he's downright tough to cover when he runs double moves so he could also get wide open 25+ yards downfield at times, too.

Then there is the depth at WR. Guys like Carl Tabb and Adrian Arrington and Doug Dutch and Antonio Bass and Mario Manningham all have a ton of talent. Some bring sprinters speed, some bring dynamic moves in the open field, some bring size. But they've all got a shot at becoming the #3 or #4 wide receiver and I'm confident that whoever wins the competition will be a threat the other team has to worry about.

And then we get to the TEs. Considering the substantial amount of talent at WR and TB that Chad Henne has to work with, it just does not seem fair that he has 2 great TEs to work with as well. Tim Massaquoi is a returning first team all Big Ten TE and Tyler Ecker is perhaps just as good. Both have size and speed and good hands and create matchup problems for the defense. I'm not sure which will have the better year, but they are a great duo that can do a ton of damage if the D focuses on the WRs and TBs. I envision a few more double TE sets this year to give us a formation that is dangerous for rushing and passing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Michigan's offense: The RBs

Mike Hart. 282 carries, 1455 yards, 9 TDs. He twisted and turned and fought for every yard last year and ended up 10th in the nation in rushing yardage.

Pretty good year for any running back on any team in the country. But Mike Hart? He was a true freshman. He started somewhere between fourth and sixth on the depth chart. He had 8 carries for 37 yards the first 2 games combined. The last 10 games he averaged over 140 a game. He also added 26 catches for 237 yards and 1 TD. That's almost 165 yards and 1 TD per game after he took over the majority of the carries. At one point he had three consecutive games of over 200 yards rushing in Big Ten play and four consecutive games with over 200 total yards.

How in the hell do you follow up that performance? If my guess is right, he won't live up to the same numbers as last year. But that's not a bad thing. With another year under Max Martin's belt and Kevin Grady having been enrolled and practicing with the team since December, the depth of talent at TB is perhaps better than any point since Tyrone Wheatley and Ricky Powers and Jesse Johnson rotated carries. My prediction is that Mike Hart doesn't get the 27 carries per game he averaged over the last 10 games. He might get 20-22 carries per game, but Martin and Grady are more than capable of sharing the load at times.

I look for Michigan to run the ball more than last year for 3 reasons:
1) more talent at TB

2) 4/5 OL starters return
3) Braylon Edwards departure

I think we see a return to a purely balanced offense instead of the passing dominated attacks Michigan has had the last few years. And I would say that's a good thing. I'm not sure if the Wolverines will face a D that is equipped to stop both the rushing and passing attack.

My predictions?
Mike Hart - 245 carries, 1300 yards, 8 TDs
Max Martin - 80 carries, 400 yards, 5 TDs
Kevin Grady - 50 carries, 215 yards, 5 TDs

As for the fullbacks, I'm not quite sure how the depth chart will work out but I am fairly certain that a solid blocker will emerge. What I do know is that the FB won't get as much PT as in previous seasons. Hart and Martin both seem to be the type of backs that can run well out of single back formations and with the depth at TB, I look for 2 TB sets at times. So watch out for the Michigan ground game to put up a season that would make Bo Schembechler proud and take a lot of heat off Chad Henne.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Michigan's offense: The QBs

Chad Henne is coming off a record breaking true freshman season and Michigan fans are expecting big things in his sophomore campaign. How good was he last year? 60.2% completions, 2743 yards, 25 TDs, and 12 INTs. Not Heisman-worthy numbers, but damn impressive for a true freshman. So how good will he be this year? Well, depends on a couple factors. For one, Biletnikoff winner Braylon Edwards is taking his game breaking show to Sundays in the NFL. He won't be around to bail out Henne on any jump balls this year (I know MSU won't miss facing him). But he does have returning talent to work with at the WR position. Jason Avant and Steve Breaston both battled some injuries last year, but are healthy and looking to put together big years without Edwards around hogging catches.

But let's not forget Michigan's QB coach Scot Loeffler. He's done some impressive work in the past, and now Chad Henne has a full year of his tutelage behind him when he steps under center. Let's also not forget that QBs can make big strides from their 1st to 2nd year out of high school. Take Chris Leak as an example of another highly touted QB that started as a true frosh, and look at the improvements he made as a sophomore:

Leak freshman year: 59.4% completions, 2435 yards, 16 TDs, 11 INTs, 7.61 yds/attempt
Leak sophomore year: 59.6% completions, 3197 yards, 29 TDs, 12 INTs, 8.01 yds/attempt

He just slightly improved his completion percentage, and had increases in his TD rate and yds/attempt, with a decrease in his INT rate. Not bad across the board improvements for a guy that had a pretty good season as a true freshman QB in the SEC. Chad Henne had an even better true freshman season than Leak, though he did have Braylon Edwards to throw to, but it's reasonable to assume that he will also make improvements.

Beyond starting WRs Breaston and Avant, there is lots of other talent at his disposal including perhaps the best TE duo in the Big Ten (if not the country). I also fully expect Michigan's ground game to take a lot of pressure off the passing game, but more on that in later posts.

And who's his backup this year? None other than redshirt junior Matt Gutierrez. You might remember him as the heir to John Navarre last year until he suffered a shoulder injury just prior to the season opener which allowed Henne to step in and win the job. He's back and apparently looking pretty good throwing the ball. And while he doesn't have a lot of on the field experience, he does know the playbook inside and out and has a great reputation as a leader amongst the offensive personnel. I'm very confident that the offense would keep rolling if he was pressed into duty this year.

Beyond Henne and Gutierrez it gets a little dicey. Clayton Richard left the program to concentrate on baseball and was subsequently drafted by the Chicago White Sox (I believe in the 8th round). Incoming freshman Jason Forcier is likely #3 on the depth chart, though I cannot imagine that there are any plans for him to play outside of an emergency situation.

Overall assessment: with Henne as a sophomore and a very talented backup, this unit is one of the best in the country. They lack some experience, but that is really the only knock. Henne has a full season under his belt and Gutierrez has done everything but rack up lots of PT. I expect big things out of Chad Henne this year. 62-65% completions and a TD/INT ratio approaching 3/1 are not out of the question.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Justin Verlander

It's not often in the recent past that the Tigers have had one of the best pitching prospects in the entire league (thanks Randy Smith), but they've definitely got one now. Justin Verlander is good. Real good. For those that may not know, he was the Tigers first round pick last year out of Old Dominion. There was a long holdout for a contract and Detroit eventually broke off all talks. When Verlander's dad heard about this, he stepped in and a deal was shortly agreed upon.

This year, Verlander made his professional debut with the Tigers high class A club Lakeland in the Florida State League. To say he got off to a hot start is an understatement. He made 13 starts at Lakeland, going 9-2 with a 1.67 ERA in 86 innings pitched en route to being selected to the Florida State League All Star game. After that he was promoted to the Tigers class AA affiliate in Erie. He has made 2 starts thus far in Erie, going 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in 14 innings.

But let's take a look at his secondary pitching numbers at each stop...

In Lakeland he had 104 Ks and only 19 BBs with 70 hits allowed. That translates to a rate of 10.88 strikeouts per 9 innings, 5.47 Ks for every BB allowed, and 1.03 WHIP (walks+hits per inning pitched).

Thus far in Erie, he has 18 Ks and only 3 BBs with 5 hits allowed. That translates to a rate of 11.57 strikeouts per 9 innings, 6 Ks for every BB allowed, and 0.57 WHIP.

Allow me to put those numbers in some sort of perspective. First of all K/9IP. Anything above 7.00 is pretty good. Anything above 9.00 is very good. Once you start approaching 11 or more you're talking about legitimately great numbers (or roughly 245 Ks per 200 innings pitched). Next, look at his K/BB ratio. This is generally considered a measure of how good a pitcher's stuff is. It's easy to get strikeouts if you never throw any good pitches over the middle of the plate, but that will also give up a ton of walks. Conversely, it's easy to never walk anybody if you lob BP pitches down the middle of the plate but you also won't strike anybody out. To have a great K/BB ratio implies that you can throw pitches over the plate that batters just can't hit. Anything above 3/1 is a good ratio. Once you start getting around 5/1 or higher it is extremely impressive. Finally, we can talk about WHIP. Basically having a low WHIP means you don't allow a lot of baserunners which is the best way to prevent runs which is the best way to help your team win ball games. 1.20 is pretty good for a pitcher. 1.10 is really good. 1.00 or lower is a great number.

Look at Verlander's numbers again.

K/9IP: 10.88 and 11.57
K/BB: 5.47 and 6.00
WHIP: 1.03 and 0.57

That is downright nasty pitching. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not going to argue that Verlander should be pitching in Detroit right now and he's already better than Jeremy Bonderman or whoever else you want to name. You can't really say that. What you can say is that he is dominating lesser hitters like a great prospect should. His AA numbers also have to be taken with a large grain of salt as they only span two games.

But I will say one thing. Justin Verlander is rapidly proving to be one of the best young pitching prospects in all of baseball. If he can continue to dominate AA, I guarantee he'll be up in Detroit by next year and perhaps even this year for a cup of coffee in September.

In a week or two I'll find time to tell you all about his current Erie teammate Joel Zumaya. He's only 20 and is the 2nd youngest pitcher in the Eastern League but is 2nd in all of minor league baseball in strikeouts. He has always struggled with walks, but he is making big strides recently in that area and could also turn himself into an elite pitching prospect.

Blah Blah Blah

This blog is going to be about nothing, or maybe everything. I don't know. Mostly I'll post my rambling thoughts and ideas about sports that deserve a permanent home on the net. Hope you enjoy.